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The Four Truthful Princesses

There was once a family of princesses who were locked in a castle. By all reckonings this was for their own good, and indeed they had so rarely been outside that they would not have known what to do if they had been granted their freedom. As a consequence of their connement, they took much pleasure in tales of distant lands as told by their nurses, some of whom came from quite far away. The more estranged the tales settings were from their own, the better the princesses liked them. Each night they demanded a new story, a longer one, with ever-greater invention on the part of the nurses and more of what the eldest girl (who by some law of the country was practically a queen) called Truth. By this she meant violence and heroic deeds and also details of how common people lived their lives from one day to the next. To help me rule my subjects, she explained. In the darkness of the curtained bed, her sisters made faces at one another. It would have been unnatural for them not to feel envy at the good fortune of her birth. But it must have magic as well, said the next-eldest princess. Magic is Truth, insisted the next-next-eldest. She was a scholar, interested in art and alchemy. She especially liked recipes for complicated poisons. Or Truth is Magic. Never mind, said the youngest, who was sucking her thumb behind a gently blowing drape. Shut up and let it begin. The others pummeled her severely for her language. And then the story did begin.

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LIGHT

AVA BINGEN
It is while I stitch together the Queens gown, on the night her eldest daughter is to die, that I rst sense an uneasy power. The feeling begins as I stand with hands humbly folded beneath my apron, a seamstress watching a queen unravel. To think this is what comes of the years, Queen Isabel laments as she picks at a rip in her blue-velvet bodice. Such a night! Such calamities! We have been thoroughly cursed. Every thread at the royal waist and armpit is straining, even the linen under-chemise (my work) and the stays laced beneath. The tear snakes beneath the sag of her bosom, sideways across the belly that has thickened with so many births. My hands itch to stop her. But she is in a t, and I have no right but to let her continue. Queen Isabel is our kingdoms treasure, once a legendary beauty and now a devoted mother and dull background gure to the Kings glittering majesty. Even so commonplace a matter as a ripped gown requires a retreat to the red draped damask and candles of her formal apartments, where she is attended by a historian as well as a host of ladies and aprons and dwarfs whose task is to amuse. A simple accident becomes a Once there was a queen whose gown burst as she danced for her daughters wedding . . .

I have always loved a fairy tale. If I were a keeper of histories (scratching busily at a wax tablet, bony ngers covered in the sticky stuff ), this is what I would record: With backs held straight by their corsets, ladies clad in rainbows lounge before gilded replace and blood-curtained bed. They dget with their jewelry and shufe their slippers on the oor tiles as music climbs through the shutters, a jangly old tune that Isabelle des Rayaux, this Isabel, brought from the Loire when she came to marry King Christian Lunedie V. It is a wedding song for a dance of hops and kisses; musicians play it oating in at-bottomed boats on Skyggehavns bay and canals. It hangs in the air with the sweetness of imported sugar out of which every possible morsel at the wedding feast has been made. For this one night, there are sugar plates, sugar fruits, sugar goblets melting under spiced wine. And everyone has tasted it somehow, from King Christian on down to the little girl who sits in a nook and counts the dishes as theyre washed. Lords and ladies it from treat to treat in the airy banquet houses built in the courtyards, clad in their nest satin and brocade and cloth of tinsel, glowing with jewels, rippling at slashed breeches and sleeves, trickling ribbons from swollen hats. They are tended by servants in yellow livery or in madeover versions of the nobles castoffs, and dwarfs run from spot to spot, enacting comic scenes of courtship. At every fragile little house, the gentles gorge themselves, and those who
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follow clean up after them, licking and nibbling what they can, blending that sweetness with the tang of sweat. On such a fantastical evening, we aprons imagine that someday we, too, might wed, and it could be for love. Such is the privilege of servants; the nobles may have their money and their political alliances, but we have our feelings. I once did. While the ladies think of dancing, my sister needlewomen and I stay tense and russet-gowned at the ready, anxious lest the work of so many hands and hours go ying to bits. To the nobility, we look like faded versions of humanity, being of the kingdoms original stock rather than the French who conquered it a century ago. Yellow-haired and white-complected, without powder or paint. Anxious to satisfy our conquerors so we might spend a few days longer among our dreams. Our dreams are our riches; our hopes are our wealth. Our fears keep us working and thus let us live. I truly would like to think Im in the middle of a fairy tale, facing the period of hardship that precedes a triumph. But I am not a likely heroine. To the courtiers, Im just another native of the city; in my fathers home district, Im the lovelorn object of gossip and shame. His neighbors among the glassmakers believe that, on a winters day in front of Holy Spirit Church, I lost my one chance at marriage and happiness, and I did it in a way that forced me to disappear. They are not wrong. But, nonetheless, I brood over a nest of hope. I am only seventeen, after all, and still given to daydreams. Some of
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which have included a scene such as this, myself honored to be included in the seamstresses on hand, so close to noble ladies that I might touch them by moving an elbow. And breathing the same sweet air as the Queen. But as a simple seamstress, I can do nothing until given permission. Except invent stories to soothe myself into patience. I have cause for fear now. Pink esh is about to burst through Queen Isabels gown, and that would be a wicked outcome, indeed: her body must be protected like a relic shut in a box. She seems eager to dwell in a cofn of misery, though, as she picks at the silver embroidery and costly white pearls with which the gown is adorned. Thus far she hasnt let anyone approach not even Countess Elinor, who is her chief lady and condante, and who makes another attempt now. Your Highness. Countess Elinor takes a cautious step forward. She is unusually pale for a noblewoman but wears silver brocade to complement the Queens costume, even though it washes out what little color she might have. Most beloved Highness, it may be true that weve lived through an age of misfortune, but this is a happy evening. Perhaps a happy end to our trials. Think of your daughter Sophia! Isabel sobs, and the turquoise velvet gives another inch. Twelve years old and married ! To a Swede ! She might be Queen of Sweden one day, if Duke Magnuss older brothers die without issue. Countess Elinor makes her voice soft as she takes another step. You raised her well. Another subtle step. The entire kingdom sings praises of you both.
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Queen Isabel wards her off with a clawing hand that ashes sapphire from a ring. She is behaving like a child. Hardship has done that to her. The last eleven years have been cruel to the royal city of Skyggehavn cruel to the whole kingdom, in fact. First came the Great Sickness of 1561, which took my mother and four brothers, then seven years of war throughout Scandinavia, and when that ended, a mysterious illness that invaded the royal nursery and holds all the children, including Princess Sophia, in its canker-some grasp: Morbus Lunediernus, sent by God to scourge the royal innocents and test the nation. Now Countess Elinor has an idea. At a discreet signal, her maid and one of the in-waitings ap their skirts and shoo Queen toward Countess like a chicken. Your Highness. Triumphant, Countess Elinor nally manages to catch Queen Isabels hands in her own shy white ones. Her maid dabs at the Queens cheeks as Elinor says, Think of grandchildren. Isnt that happiness? Isabels dripping dark eyes wander to an Annunciation that hangs over the desk where she writes her letters and does her accounts. In the picture, the Virgin sits with a book open on her lap, head tilted to let the golden banner of an angels words tickle her right ear: she is going to birth a Savior. Oh. Queen Isabel sighs like a sail that the wind has forgotten. Happiness. Everyone Queen, Countess, chronicler, assorted attendants and maids, dwarfs who are here to amuse all are silent for a moment. We wonder when happiness, real happiness, will
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come to us. We breathe in and taste that tempting sweetness on the air. Maybe I, more than any, ll my lungs to the bottom. My movement draws Countess Elinors attention. She points a long white nger at me. You. Fix this. At rst Im astonished I am the youngest and humblest of the needlewomen, responsible for linen undergarments and never chosen for the silks and velvets so Im unable to budge. Get to it, Countess Elinor snaps, as if this is my usual duty. But she would be the rst with a slap if anyone approached the Queen without being ordered to do so. Gudrun Tovasdatter, the ruddy Mistress of the Needle, hands me a basket of velvet scraps. She whispers, Be careful, Ava. Pay attention. This could make your future. Excited, nervous, clutching that basket as if it holds my dead mothers soul, I fall to my knees and make my way forward like a penitent in church. It has been thrilling enough before this day to think that my needle has stitched seams that would lie over royal skin; now it is to be my own ngers that feel for the Queens esh, just a few thin layers of fabric between me and her belly. I am to touch royalty. I have been chosen. I crawl into the soft blue skirts until Im close enough to smell Isabels sweat meaty overlaid with musk, some sort of whale-oil perfume and feel the heat coming off her body. Suddenly she becomes real to me, an actual person rather than an idea. I am as afraid to touch her as I am eager to do it. I
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fumble in the pocket pouch at my waist for a pair of spectacles made by my father. Hurtigt, hurtigt. The Countess pushes at my shoulder. She has the high-sprung breasts of a virgin (indeed, she has given her crippled husband no children); they shake like milk jellies as she scolds, and in a gesture of annoyance she hoists them even higher. To the other ladies, she remarks, in the French that they use among themselves, If this cow doesnt move quickly, the men will see to the Princesss couchement alone. The Queen moans at this thought, her daughter put to bed without her blessing. The Duke, she mourns, is so much hairier than the men of this place . . . For speed, I abandon the search for my lenses and dig through the basket, trying to nd a patch for the odd-shaped rip. I fold a piece into the shape of an eye, anchor one point to the top of the Queens tear, and begin. Counting out the stitches to the rhythm of my breath: One, two, three, pause. Adjust the loose thread end. One, two, three, pause. The ancient rhythm known to every woman. I am like the girl in the story who stitches up a lady cut to bits by thieves, to be rewarded afterward with a purse of gold . . . a purse that more thieves will steal from her before she can spend it, but perhaps we may stop before that happens. With my hand on the Queens side, I feel her breathing: in and out, slow, as if shes trying to calm herself too, though she unravels further with each inhalation.
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Suddenly Isabel frees her hand to scratch around her wig. At this, of course, the rip in her bodice grows wider. Shes stopped crying but not lamenting. My daughters new husband is mad. How can she nd happiness with him? I have heard that he once jumped from a window because Countess Elinor catches the hand again and pulls it down. because he saw a mermaid in the moat below, Queen Isabel nishes miserably. She struggles, but Countess Elinor holds her fast. I keep stitching. The mermaid . . . incident . . . was nine years ago, says the Countess. And it is just gossip, told by Duke Magnuss enemies. (Here is the full story: Magnus, Duke of stergtland, was inspecting a castle in progress when from the fourth-level window he thought he saw a mermaid swimming in the moat. He jumped instantly from the window to the water, hoping to catch her. What he caught was a bad cold and a worse reputation; hes been known as Mad Magnus ever since.) Countess Elinor continues smoothly, Everyone loves a mermaid. Think of the charming legend about the lands rst settlers . . . Heathens, Queen Isabel says. Witches! Servants of the devil! She sobs again. Countess Elinor loses patience. Bring the Queen a sweet, she snaps, and her maid produces a sugar g, expertly spun and painted. The Countess pops it into the Queens mouth, and Isabel stops weeping and begins to suck.
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In the sudden hush, the ladies stand as if theyre at Mass. Only one of them murmurs a stream of attery for the Queen, complimenting her on every silly thing, from her silvering hair to the sapphire ring that never leaves her hand. The others, including the dwarfs, mumble a litanous assent. Our Queen is the greatest queen. The banquet shes planned is the greatest banquet. There is no love like the love of our Queen for her children. Underneath those voices run the whispers of the ladies maids, who can speak without moving their lips. . . . likes his ngers suckled while hes inside, one of them says. Ive seen it myself. Still sewing (one, two, three, pause), I allow myself to glance up and recognize the green of Baroness Reventlows madeover gown, now worn by her personal servant. So the speckly, chinless baroness (her husband blind from the war) is having an affair, and she doesnt make her maid leave the bedroom to conduct it. Queen Isabel crunches up the last of the g in her teeth. I feel the vibrations in her waist. Swounds, breathes another maid. Thats a bit of nasty. Absentmindedly, the Queen pulls a pearl from her gown and rolls it in her ngers. She puts it into her mouth like another confection, but when Elinor holds out her hand, Isabel spits the pearl into it. She looks ashamed, as if only just realizing what shes done. Elinor calls for another g and pops it into Isabels mouth. Poor Queen, I think, with a compassion that surprises me; usually I consider her the luckiest woman in the world. Poor
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Queen, whose beloved daughter is about to sail away to a part of Sweden called stergtland. Poor Queen, who must always play a part scripted by others. Held in Elinors steel grasp, Isabel is no more free to act than the rest of us. She slumps against my hand, and the rip widens yet again. I stop caring about neat work and stitch madly against time. Our princesses are the loveliest princesses. Our prince is the handsomest prince . . . . . . handsome legs, and those white teeth, comes another whisper clearly not about the Crown Prince, who is as comely as a stick insect. Hair black as a Southerners. But what I heard about him Gave his girl the Fire, he did, whispers Reventlows maid, as the lady-in-waiting whose task it is to atter declaims, The most fortunate kingdom in all creation! The whisper gets even softer, the bare stirring of a breath: And she killed herself for the pain. Mandrake and antimony. Stole them from the physicians stores. I try to blink a blurriness away from my eyes. That horrid illness, Italian Fire, strikes nobles and prostitutes more often than their servants theres a famous wiggle in the court ladies hips, as they give a subtle scratch to its itch but no one is immune. Half the sellers of simples and unguents outside the palace gates are touting cures for that burning white ooze and the ache in the bladder, but the cures are as bad as the symptoms and, often as not, even deadlier. However much we crave love, love brings danger. As Ive found out too well though not with the Fire.
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And now, the very worst happens: dim-sighted with grief for my own lost happiness, I let my needle slip. Of its own will, it plunges through layers of velvet and lawn and stiff linen, between whalebones and into royal esh. One, two, disaster. A tiny bud of red appears around the slim shaft, then blooms to the size of my ngernail. I have just wounded the Queen. For a moment, time is frozen. I hold my breath; the voices murmur on. I think, Maybe I imagined it, the stab. Maybe Im imagining the stain. Then Queen Isabel shrieks, tearing into the recitation of her praises. A piercing sound that seems forced from her very middle, as if her esh has never been pricked before. The women turn to look at me, all hidden as I am in the turquoise. Im cold to the toes. The Queen takes a step away, exposing me. She keeps her arms stiff and spread as if shes afraid theyll be splashed with blood. This seamstress, she says, staring forward, is a clumsy troll. Countess Elinor presses her lily-pale lips together. Her breasts are blue with fury. What is your name? she asks, one moment before she slaps my face. So there is my power, to stab the Queen. And there is her power, nurtured by the drone bees who tend her.

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Sophia Lunedie

WELVE and one-third years ago, in the twilit morning of a dark December day, Princess Sophia Lunedie slipped out between her mothers legs and into a crown. Not her own crown but her fathers, or her future husbands it has never mattered whose. Invisible but no less insistent, a crown swaddled her through a childhood in which she was promised to a series of foreign princes that changed according to her fathers need for alliances. With each year the crown grew tighter, until, this spring, her womans courses stained its tines with blood. The rubies of a virtuous woman, more precious to her fathers kingdom than a real gem would be. But these are the thoughts of a child, Sophia tells herself. She will not always be a child. She has left the nursery for good and is standing in a bedroom, her bedroom for this week, and her husbands. She is to sleep (if she sleeps) far from her one brothers and ve sisters chaste sickbeds, where they doze or moan according to their dispositions, dreaming doses of antimony and ground gold, prayers to thank God for the afiction that tests their souls and renes them in holy re as He rened His son on the holy Cross. Dear, sweet siblings, all still children who listen to nurses stories and imagine themselves merely

enchanted by the curse of some fairy jealous of their mothers beauty. Maman is not beautiful, and her teeth are gray. She is fat and split her dress while dancing with a lord; it has been mended clumsily and is tearing further. But in this moment, Sophia loves her ercely. It is Sophias last week at her parents court, and she must spend it with the stranger she just married, in a palace that skates on the thin skin of land between bay and canals. From this night forward, she is a Swede and a Protestant. And a duchess. What little girl has not dreamed of being a duchess? Or someday (if Magnuss two older brothers die childless) a queen? Candle ames shudder in the puddles of her jewels; the great diamond on what will someday be her bosom reects the beds draping of red damask. Maman (Mother, Sophia must call her now) unties the lacing at the neck of the girls stiff rose-and-gold gown. Dear child, she whispers, you must be brave. Within this very hour, there will be blood again. The Princess already tastes it, there in the back of her throat, where her heart is trying to choke her. Hands scrape Sophia like pincers, removing her jewelry, the pins in her scratchy ruff, the false curls in her thin hair. The ladies are ants, fat busy ants, seizing her sleeves and collar and overskirt. They strip her down to a frame of reedy limbs and hips. Begging pardon, Highness. One of her borrowed ladies,
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Countess Ditlevnavn, tugs a wad of fabric down over Sophias head. Sophia pulls her shoulders in to make this easier. Lunedie princesses go to bed in long white linen gowns; this one whistles down her body and pools at her feet with a spill of lace. It is too hot, and the starch prickles. Sophia wants to scratch herself, but of course she cannot. There is a bony white callus on her leg that itches hard, and it will make her howl with pain if she touches it. Maman gestures at a maid who has been waiting with a tray (there are so many of these girls, all invisible till they move close). Spiced wine, says the Queen, picking up a glass goblet that glows with the heat of the drink, for fertility and for restful sleep. Doctor Candenzius and I devised the recipe. She holds the cup while Sophia swallows. Drinks in one long gulp, holding her breath, staring at the tapestries that weave the history of her homeland into wavering tableaux. Black-clad witches cast out of Norway in rowboats, green mermaids towing them to their new home. Priests in long robes, an astrologer in blue, under a great white burst of a moon that looks like a headache. A shipwrecked man living in the carcass of a whale, discovering the oils that make lamps and perfumes. The battle in which the rst Count Lunedie of France, lured by access to whale oil and valuable amber, claimed the kingdoms throne. The marriage of Maman and Papa, by the golden altar of the cathedral where the bones of Saint Ruta patron of shers and shnet knotters, rope
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twisters and lace makers had miraculously manifested and then been interred. The drab, narrow panel depicting the signing of the Treaty of Stettin, the document that ended seven years of war with no benet to anyone, except those who make their living by selling provisions and arranging marriages to smooth over hostility. Sophia and Magnus were part of that treaty. They will reconcile mighty Sweden to the rest of Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Poland, and Papas land), all represented by her twiggish body. As of tonight, Sophia is part of history. She will be woven into a tapestry herself. In Sweden. This has been one of Sophias good days, but she feels the curseful Morbus Lunediernus crouching in her anyway, like a wild cat that waits to pounce. Theres the burn in her stomach and a rash around her mouth and on her palms that no unguent and powder cosmetic can conceal. Every one of her limbs aches, and patches of her skin itch. The wine helps, makes things duller. Her throat goes numb, and she can no longer feel her heart. Your mouth, Princess. Countess Elinor Pars, her mothers chief lady, dabs at Sophia with a feathery puff. It leaves a bitter powder; Sophias new husband, Duke Magnus of stergtland, with his earthworm lips in a nest of dark beard, will not want to kiss her. But he will do it anyway, because thats his duty. Maman makes a sound that is half sigh, half clearing of the throat. A signal to her ladies.
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They sink to the oor to pray. One last moment together, and it is on their knees before the man in the whale. Then its time for Sophias husband. After Magnuss men have deposited him also in nightdress, boisterous with drink in the bed where Sophias body is too slight to make either ridge or ravine; after they have all prayed together again; and after Magnus has ceremoniously touched Sophias naked white stick of a leg with his own scratchy one (scarred from the war against her countrymen, for which the two of them are making peace now), the last thing Sophia sees is her mothers face. Drawn, yellow, its expression the same that Maman wears when visiting the nursery where the clutchy odor of Morbus fugs the air. This homely face peers around the edge of the dark oak door for a long, sad look, and Sophia blinks. She is very sleepy; it must be the spices in the wine. (Maman is so clever with medicines, quite as knowledgeable as the physicians she employs.) Sophia is grateful for the drowse that blunts her fear. Maybe she can sleep through what comes next . . . like the princess in the enslumbered castle . . . with thorns . . . The tapestry priests x her with a cold reproach. Of course she must be wakeful during what comes next; otherwise she cannot truly say shes given herself to her husband. She must be as attentive as she is faithful. She will be like her own parents in this. Her father doesnt even have a single bastard and has never been caught with a mistress; their marriage is the marvel of Europe.
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The door closes, and the voices and shufing feet retreat, to wait in the outer room until one of them (Sophia, Magnus) cries out. Then the lords and ladies and priests can look at each other with satisfaction, and the maids and in-waitings can try to guess if the new couple might need something or are simply expressing their pleasure in each other. (Where is stergtland? Someone once showed her on a map, but she cant for the life of her think of it now.) So here she lies, in bed, next to her husband. Magnus. Who is large and hot and shaggy, his breath whistling, wind breaking from both ends. The banquet was rich. Sugar cheese, sugar cakes, a smell of rot. He is gazing at the mermaid tapestry. Sophia has heard it said that he once spotted a mermaid swimming in his castle moat and jumped from a window to catch her. He had to be dragged out half drowned and was delirious with fever for days. It is the kind of love that every girl wishes to inspire in a man. Sophia waits for Magnus to speak. To excuse himself, to address her. Instead he scratches his crotch. The mermaids on the tapestry waver, as if they really are swimming through green threads of ocean. She grabs at her nightdress, feeling it dampen and crumple. Her hands are uncommonly pink. Id like a sip of that wine, she says, trying to sound brave. Maman has left a jug by the bed, and Magnus heaves himself up to pour a whole cup of it for her. He has a belly and a wide behind; he makes the bed shake. As a wedding gift, he gave her an emerald parure cut in the new glittering style and closed in a glowy amber box. Now he just sits there while she drinks,
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scratching beneath his arms and yawning. She sips and sips, and soon the wine is gone. My lord, she says, with lids so heavy that her future children might be sitting on them. If you would like if I, mmm I am yours to command, she concludes, conscious that she is mumbling. And I am in perfect health today. She sties an air bubble that ticks in her throat. She hears herself speak as if across an enormous room. I am eager to please. And she concludes with what is actually a greeting: Health to your soul. He groans and takes the cup from her, strokes his beard, and sighs. He is clearly not so eager for any pleasure she might provide. Onward into the continent, then, he says, and reaches for her.

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AVA BINGEN
The jail oor is a surprise, warm in a land heated by the waters underground. It aches at my ankles, feet, buttocks, the progress of that burn and the swelling of my fear being the only way to mark time in the bright dead of a spring night, when I sit cross-legged and lean against a wall, roll a pilfered sugar cherry between my ngers, and wait for Fate. Fate refuses to stop at the pretty part of the tale; Fate insists on more tests of courage and wit, a terrible end, even if the heroines heart be pure and her crime accidental. I remember to be grateful for small bounties. I have a window, in perhaps the last moments of my life. It seeps bluegray light and the same jangle of far-off music, the faint savor of sweetness mixing with the tang of jail as I breathe in. The wedding banquet has continued, presumably with the Queen in fully restored turquoise stitched by someone elses needle, as Princess Sophia meets her husband in bed and the nobles celebrate the fact that tonight more royal blood will spill. I remember that red droplet leaking around the tip of my needle, owering onto white linen. Even in my fear, I feel a thrill. To have pierced royal esh! How many can say theyve done that? Let alone lived for more than a heartbeat afterward. My father tells of a tournament at which a stray splinter from

the former Duke of Marsvins lance accidentally rammed right through the old Kings nose; the Duke was missing his head before the King had a chance to breathe his last. And then we had a new King, and a new Duke. Perhaps I must also resign myself to death at barely seventeen, unmarried if not untried, with only my father and stepmother to mourn me. A story passed around by gossips and then forgotten. It is in fact a rare soul thats never felt the possibility of ready death from falling mortar, hungry canals, waves of disease that sweep over the water and into city.When I faced mortality ten years ago, with the Great Sickness that took nearly half the souls in Skyggehavn, I shook it off even though it claimed my mother and brothers. At the time, people called me lucky, as if I had visited the realm of trolls and fought my way back into the light, dragging their king by the beard. You alone have been saved, my father told me, in order to accomplish some great good in this world. He mourned my mother and brothers very much and cursed himself for unluck. But you are lucky, I insisted to him, patting at his tears with my skinny child hands. I couldnt bear to see him weep, even though every other living soul around us wept. God wants greatness from you too. I believe it was then that he began his experiments with lens grinding, shaping his bits of glass to see not ve feet away or even ten, as with the spectacles he normally fashioned, framed, and sold, but thousands of miles into the heavens to nd God or the spirits of our family. And I know it was then
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that he recognized my talent for sewing and sent me to a special school for girls good with the needle, all in training to open their own shops or follow the courts of grand ladies, one of few honorable professions for women. But here I am, underground and guilty. As afraid as if I were already facing a torturer, as hopeless as if Id never had an education or a lover. As still as if already laid in the grave. We are all on the brink of death anyway, all of us suffering some disease, though some may hide it better than others. The nobles have their Italian Fire, the King his constant stomach pains, which sometimes make him bleed into his breeches; the Queen is remote, as if a part of her is missing. And consider the royal children: all of them (except now Sophia) conned to their silver-paneled nursery, innocents suffering with Morbus Lunediernus, with boils and sores and rashes, aches in the bones, and ngernails eaten away. They have been deemed too ill to travel, even to one of the country castles where the Lunedies normally spend summer months gulping down clean air. But it is far worse for us who are not noble. We cough and limp; we lose our hair, lose our teeth, catch fevers and chills; we grow cancers that split our bones and worms that gnaw through our bowels. We work till we drop dead from a sudden pain in the chest or side. Illness makes us strangers in our own lives, and then it becomes our closest relation. Is it any wonder that we grab for what little bit of pleasure might come to us before death? I mentioned I once had a lover. We loved each other ercely; it might be said my life has already been full enough.
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But I thought to have him longer and to have more with him: a family, a shop, a life. Yes, Ive wanted what everyone wants, from sovereign to scullery maid. Love and home, happiness; a sense that I am living my own life, not that Ive fallen into some other, a confused changeling who cant learn the rules before shes doomed. By now the Queens pinprick will have crusted over. I imagine her in a nightdress (one that I have sewn for her and embroidered with owers Ive never seen except in pictures and patterns). She rakes her nails over the spot, having forgotten why she itches, forgotten how that grain of scab arrived on her side. Perhaps there will be a scar far smaller than the cherry between my ngers, even less than the bite of a louse . . . I have an itch myself, on my neck, just beneath my left earlobe. When I scratch, a shred of skin comes away under my nail and a brittle black body no bigger than a pins head. When I squash it between my nails, the insides burst in a minuscule stain. There were bugs in Jacobs bed that rst night, seething from the straw and through the mattresss seams to bite into esh raw with autumn cold. We didnt care; we laughed and tossed handfuls of spiders at each other, plucked lice from each others hair and smashed them on the wall. We kissed and were happy, drunk on having made our choice. I was fteen and a half (young for an apron bride but not impossibly so) and Jacob Lille just eight years older. He was a journeyman in the amber trade, and he always smelled giddily
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of the stuff. He was nishing his masterpiece, a nely wrought puzzle-globe claried and hardened and carved to elaborate perfection; a nested series of lacy golden spheres fashioned from a single piece, one inside the other, growing smaller and smaller in succession until the eye could no longer see. He was about to become not only a master but quite likely famous. He was halfway to the tiniest of the lace spheres, which was to be smaller even than the pinprick in the Queen, when we rst laid eyes on each other. It was in the glassworkers district, at Holy Spirit Church, which would site the beginning and the end of our story. His parish church had crumbled into a mud puddle, and his parents needed a new place for Mass. On the Feast of the Assumption, Jacob came with them to our Hellignds Kirke. I saw him rst as the ring of bronze bells marked a wooden Virgins ascension into Heaven and drowned out the howls of the madmen locked in the nearby hospital. His eyes were very blue no bluer than the eyes of a typical Skyggehavner, it is true, but they caught the last light of summer and smiled into mine, which I knew in that moment were just as blue as his, and that I was as lovely as a man could ever imagine. Our families took Communion that day. When it was my turn for the cup, I took care to place my lips where hed put his. I saw him notice my boldness, and we both ushed so red that our fathers laid wrists to foreheads to check us for fever. We stared forward at the wooden Christ with his ve wounds; in a strange way, I found the sculpture exciting. I learned only later that Jacob was actually a Protestant.
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He believed in direct communication with the heavens; he belonged to a secret sect that met to pray and discuss the word of God, at least as much as was recognizable in our tongue, for the priests kept a stranglehold on Latinate verses and forbade translation. On that Assumption Day, he had brushed his lips on the cup only, refusing to take Communion through a priest. Yes, the blue eyes burned for God as for me. But, in my presence, mostly for me. I was his jewel, his treasure, his heart, his hearts desire. He said he loved me to madness, and he joked that one day hed be conned to the Holy Spirit Hospital for love of me. I laughed away his compliments, but a secret part of me hoped they were real, not simply poetry. And soon came October. Ofcially betrothed, with our wedding just a week away, we took my fathers little boat onto the canals to gaze at the green lights that blur the night sky in that season. We rowed bedazzled with light and love, ignoring the trash that struck the oars and the rats that paddled after us, toward the room he shared with another journeyman at his masters studio. While everyone else was out marveling at the skies, we tied up our boat and went inside and marveled at each other, tossed the spiders, and made them part of our love nest. The wedding is only a week away, I said in the teasing manner I had back then. His eyes sparkled and he grabbed at me. By candlelight, Jacob unfastened my clothes and kissed every spot where I could dream of receiving a kiss. When
26

I was dizzy with pleasure, he rubbed himself against me rubbed only, for he declared he still wanted to marry a virgin; he owed me that much. It would be disrespectful to treat my wife otherwise, he said with a note of indignation, and I couldnt help grinning with delicious anticipation. I had a new red dress waiting for our wedding, embroidered and trimmed with lace of my own needles. Jacob kissed me again, and again, and again. And again he rubbed himself on me until he couldnt rub anymore with an exultant groan, he spent himself over my belly and thighs, and I felt the tickle of it dripping down the curves of me, and believed this was the rst of many times together. Jacob made me happy this way, happy with myself and with him. We parted as lovers, with more of his owery declarations and a perfect kiss, as I returned to my fathers house. But Jacob also made me mistrust vows and songs and stories and their conceits ever after, as well as love itself. Because in the end, we did not marry. All I know is what I heard from Jacobs father, who wouldnt look at me as he delivered the news. Our boys gone to sea, he said, gazing into the throng that was ling into Hellignds Kirke that Sunday. He walked away before I could open my mouth. I had to conclude the rest. Just that morning, our servant had reported that a forbidden vernacular translation of Holy Scripture had been discovered nearby. So I imagined soldiers tapping at the Lutheran sect-house door. I imagined a list of names with Jacobs prominent among them. I imagined Jacob
27

imprisoned and then, because I couldnt bear the thought, and because I was sure gossip would have named any who were arrested I convinced myself that he had ed in time to protect himself. In church I caught sight of the wounded Christ. I could not bear it. Running home, I wept through the time of Mass, through bells ringing and madmen shouting, the plash of oars as some burgher or other traveled along the canal below my window. Danger of death: this was the only reason I could think that Jacob would have abandoned me. It was the only reason I could accept. I was sure hed gone to some country full of Lutherans Denmark, Iceland, one of the Germanies. I was left to imagine him leaning from the deck of some great ship, casting a net to catch the amber with which hed make his fortune in the new land. Or perhaps a mermaid to take as bride. Our boys gone to sea. Why did love come to me as a Protestant? Well nd you a husband, Father promised when he came home, through the door by the stone head that advertised his trade. Your stepmother and I will take care of it. Sabine added, A better husband. A richer one. A good Catholic. So she, too, had added and made the same deduction; this made it all true in my mind, and I wept again. Abandoned for a different version of God it felt worse, I sobbed, than if I were jilted for another girl. Nonsense, Father said; he meant well. Nonsense, gently, over and over.
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He and Sabine had just married that week themselves, also for love. Sabine was twice widowed, now prosperous. Both she and Father felt sorry for me, and generous, and eager to share their happiness. They even offered to increase my dowry. I begged them to wait. I thought Jacob might change his mind and come back. Maybe hed hear somehow that the names denounced in church did not include his, and hed know it was safe to return. Or if he stayed gone, I pleaded to go after him. Father and Sabine were shocked. Not by yourself, Sabine said. Not without knowing your destination, said Father. I proposed going rst to Copenhagen (somehow my bones told me hed be there), then Iceland and elsewhere, but Father and Sabine held rm. They would not give me money to travel, to pay for myself and a companion to try our luck, and they would not go with me themselves unless I learned for certain where Jacob had gone. It would be better to marry someone else immediately, said Sabine. I heard the two of them talking in their bed at night, worrying that I had made myself mad with heartbreak. I visited Jacobs parents in the fragrant amber-handlers quarter, to nd out what they knew. Hes gone, said Jacobs mother. To sea, said his gaunt father. My lover was their only son. His four unmarried sisters stared, and so did the neighbors who saw me at their door. The coincidence of Jacobs disappearance and the raid on the
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Lutherans had made everyone draw that one conclusion, and there was a taint about the family now. If you have news from him before I do, I said boldly, let him know that I dont give a pin for religion. The whole family recoiled, crossing themselves, and I was never welcome there again. I was desperate. I wondered if we were all wrong. I even thought that maybe and this was madness itself he had indeed lost his senses out of love and needed me to save him. I brought a basket of cakes to Hellignds Hospital and walked among the madmen, breaking off bits of sweetness for the poor souls inside (some meek, some ghting in chains), searching each grimy face for my beloved. I asked the monks about a tall blond, sweet-smelling man, and they (having taken vows of silence) sadly shook their heads. So I forced myself to return home and wait, stitch collars and cuffs for the ne ladies of Sabines acquaintance, and at last learn the virtue of patience. Like many a fool before me, I congratulated myself on having remained a virgin in deed if not intention (and though it was not my restraint that preserved my maidenhead). Thereby I made everything worse, because for all our cleverness, Jacob and I had been careless. In time I discovered that as his seed dripped between my thighs, my greedy womb had reached down to grab a drop for itself. Though to any eyes a virgin, I began to grow a child. Not without some happiness; I had a notion, a tiny seed of hope, that the drop within me would call its father homeward. But when another month
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passed and then a third, the slow break of my heart scraped the seed away. That it took riddance in a public place in front of the church, no less was my downfall. It was the Saturday before Epiphany, so there was a market on the plads, lit by torches on a dark winter midday. Father and Sabine and I put on our nest for it. Father had just sold a pair of spectacles to the court astrologer, who had also commissioned a perspective glass for looking at the heavens and a hat embroidered by me. Despite the embarrassment of my jilting, our family fortune looked full of promise, and Father and Sabine wanted to savor it, to bask in the neighbors envy. They planned to buy little things at the stalls and to enjoy the antics of an acrobat troupe the guild master had praised. I walked dully behind the two of them, trying to put a brave face on grief and fear. Many a girl has been rejected; many a love has been uprooted from the marsh of a wounded heart. But what was I to do? I pulled my stomach tighter and tighter, and pressed my sts into the hollow that would soon swell to become a baby, under cover of cinching my shawl. I remember Father grumbling that he could not get one of the lenses on the perspective glass right, and with the clouds over the city, he would not be able to spot the stars all night. It was the sort of grumbling thats really a boast, for of course everyone thought it wonderful that the work of his hands would be mounted on the palaces at west tower, perhaps even to be examined by the Kings keen eye. This device was an innovation of my fathers, the fulllment of the
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promises wed made to each other after the Great Sickness. It was much more sophisticated, with its system of glass wafers and tubes and candles, than the water-lled orbs used at most courts. It brought the stars halfway to the ground; it allowed the viewer to see the surface of the moon. As Father bragged, I blew my nose into my sleeve, pretending to have a rheum. I wished he could grind me a glass that would show the way to my lost suitor. Looking around at the chilblained crowd, I wasted some small hope for following Sabines advice, nding a new husband who would rescue me and accept my baby. Sabine was in the full spirit of the day, walking broad and proud as a ship under sail. Her eyes sparkled through a pair of Fathers lenses as, one after another, masters and their wives came to greet her and to congratulate Father on his success. Eventually we found the acrobats, their breath pluming in the cold. We stopped to look as a man swallowed re, then blew it before him like a dragon. A boy threw himself at on his belly and planted his chin on the paving stones, then ran circles around his own head. I watched drearily, rubbing the beads of my mothers amber bracelet between my ngers and wishing the old wives tales might be true: that amber brings happiness, delity, and a banishing of evil spirits. As part of our wooing, Jacob had given me a needle case hed made himself out of amber and brass. It was full of the best needles and pins, with a tiny scissor for snipping threads. A gift, he said, to sew our hearts together. I hated amber in that moment. I tore the bracelet from
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my wrist, but it was all I had of my mother. I shoved it into the pocket at my waist. I told myself, I must try again, I must try not to mind, I must at least look as if all is well, and forced a smile at a glassblower who had always blushed in my presence. He blushed now, too, and bowed at me. My father bought Sabine some ribbons; she hinted irtatiously that they were for a petticoat. A neighbor teased about the stone head on our house, which had recently come loose and was beginning to list to the right. The man in motley opened his mouth and slid a sword into his throat. And then I screamed. It was as if the sword had entered my body. I felt myself tearing apart; I felt blood splashing my thighs. I knelt on the square, and the blood puddled under my skirts. It left a stain that remains on the stones to this day, if only to my eyes. Back then, all entertainments stopped as fairgoers gathered round me, clucking with what seemed to be concern but was, naturally, speculation. Madmen bore witness in the hospital nearby. The glassblower vanished. Shes always had spells at her monthlies, my stepmother said, fast and so loud I would have amed red under any other conditions. Instead I clutched my stomach and groaned. Poor thing! Sabine fairly shouted, gesturing to my father. Naturally shed already guessed what was happening to me. There, there, my dear, Father said stagily. He was as shrewd as his wife and caught her clue neatly. This time will be ne, as it always is. He wrapped me in his cloak, and the two of them bore me home, my head a lolling broken daisy.
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I took to my bed. I was fevered and sick, though the blood didnt last long. Our servant, Gerda, stayed with me day and night; Father and Sabine brought me soups and poultices of herbs. They campaigned in the neighborhood to insist that this was just an episode of terrible courses. Some virgins have a time, you know. I heard Sabine say it over and over, down by the canal below my window. Shell be up and about soon. Every soul has its secrets, and it is no secret that there are some who make it their business to ferret these out and spread them through town. I myself had been guilty of gossiping, telling stories to the girls at needle school or to my lover. Harmless secrets, I thought them; but Ive since concluded there is no such thing. Not since I was the subject. When my stepmother came upstairs, she repeated the rumors about me angrily. Not just that Id fallen pregnant and Jacob had discarded me for it, not just that I miscarried from the shame of being abandoned. But even more: that the bloody squall was of my choosing too, and that I had deed holy law by bringing it on in front of a church. The kindest of the neighbors believed it was God or the Spirit Himself who purged me, enraged at a sinning presence on holy ground. The least kind thought me an abortioness and said I should be pilloried for the crime. Some and these made Sabine angriest of all said my new stepmother had given me the poison, as one of her previous husbands had been an apothecary. Under Queen Isabel, who is so modest that she wont wear garments a mans hand has touched, Skyggehavn has
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been a city of churchly virtue, the glassmakers district particularly so. When a community develops aspirations toward gentility, suddenly the bastards disappear and all the women must be virgins. Im sure that among these good people there were women who had drunk bryony wine or chewed an oniony autumn crocus, thrust rocks or sticks inside themselves to expel unwanted occupants Ive heard of a glass master who specializes in a bauble that will do this but at the whisper that I had done it too, they turned against me. I took on the guilt of every woman who had broken the law this way, and no one thought to make sure I had sinned in fact as well as in rumor. And how can I be certain it was not my own wishes that caused my miscarriage? Sometimes wishes are granted, and I am not the rst to observe that this is rarely for the best. Father and Sabine worried that at any moment the city guardsmen might appear and haul me off to prison. But to their credit, they did not (so far as I know) consider tossing me out among the streets and canals; they kept me upstairs, kept nursing me, kept hoping for some x to the situation. And I, who had been so impatient to push forward with my life now I could not move, couldnt sleep or eat, paralyzed with shame and terror. I thereby made the speculation worse, for some say a natural miscarriage heals within a day, while a poisonous one takes weeks. They also say a child conceived in love holds rm, no matter how a woman tries to dislodge it. This rumor I now know to be false.
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It is true that the pain of that child did something to my bones, which have not been right since. They ache with the cold and throb with the heat; they no longer bend in the right places. I still have my maidenhead, but it is an awkward thing, especially here on the oor of the palace prison, as I listen to the last sounds of celebration and know I never had the pleasure of a full couchement myself. But Father and his new wife saved me. They told me I had a different destiny, that I hadnt survived so long in order to languish in a bed of shame. They hauled me out and propped me up. Sabine laced me into a corset from the days when she had a waist, and the two of them took me to church. The Latin gave me a headache. The incense made me sick. The statues and paintings were a dizzying array of gures that swam before me. But I stood for all three hours and managed not to vomit or fall down, and this slowed the wagging tongues, even if I could never dismiss suspicion completely. I was ruined for the glassmakers guild, certainly, and for the amber-handlers. I might as well have died, for all they thought of me for marriage afterward. Even if it were just Eves curse, no man wants a woman with such a violent cycle. This was my life. Already I was a changeling in it. Luckily, or else dreadfully as I believe in this moment sitting in the doomful casemates Sabine had a friend among the palace housekeepers, and she passed my name along with the chief astrologers endorsement (he was very pleased with the hat Id made him) to the needle mistress for the Queen. Mistress
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Gudrun was impressed with my closed seams and cut lace; she offered a wage that might win me honor. A dowry someday. Or sometimes I thought it, though I told myself sternly not to a passage to Denmark, where I might nd Jacob Lille among the Luther-loving amber handlers and take my rightful place beside him, saddened about our rst baby but glad again for the poetry he would spill into our lives. At other times, of course, I thought to slap his face, for sailing into such an easy life and leaving me a hard one. Nonetheless, I found I had to believe his life was easy; to think otherwise was to give up all hope. So, in the house with the stone head, we convinced ourselves: Here was a triumph for the Bingens! A father with a commission for a splendid perspective glass, a daughter employed in the Queens own household! Father and Sabine kissed me soundly on both cheeks, gave me their blessings, and, I suspect, leaned on the door with a sigh of relief when I left. When I rst stepped through the palace gates with my spare clothes bundled into a sack, I felt a sort of zzy excitement, a hope that my life and heart were making themselves over. Now, I resolved, my tale would best end in becoming Mistress of the Needle myself, with a dozen women stitching my commands, the royal family developing a personal fondness for me; an independence that would not keep me bound to a mans affections. I would be queen of my own life and take pride in my loneliness. So endings change. I fashioned a new fortune from the
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rags of the old, and I smiled at all within the gates, in a bubble of good intentions that led to the honor of needle waiting at the banquet tonight. And to prison after all. I smash beetle after beetle, wondering if I should enjoy my sugar cherry now or wait to bite down and let it be the last taste in my mortal life. The cell oor shakes with the force of the life beneath it . . . or, no, with a jailers footsteps. The bugs go scuttling deep down for cover. I drop the sugar cherry back into my bosom, to be some comfort as Im sent off to execution. My prison master is a ruddy man in blue livery. His neck pouches like a hog sellers purse on market day, for he has grown fat from swallowed terror. Keys tinkle cheerfully from his belt. There you are, then, he says, holding the door open. I feel foolish when I realize that he didnt have to unlock it. Though of course I never needed to be locked up; if the Queens guard says to stay in a place, there is certain death for leaving it. Eleven months at the palace have taught me that much, and to spring to my feet when Im summoned. Blood rushes back to my ankles, and I wobble, smoothing my apron by reex. I am, I think, as cold as a star in the sky. I rub my hands together and adjust my cap. Gods wounds, frken, you look well enough for where youre going, says the guard.
38

MIDI SORTE
First she were a baby, then a girl, then a sick girl, then come her throes. The rst scream not so bad, just any womans scream; the ladies and the maids look down their laps and nod, to say we all have this pain before and that some time it lead to pleasure. For me, that pleasure came just recent, though I am in this cold land full seven years. The rst man of this place who buy me from the boat take me in such a way as to savor me, though it not seem so nice at age eleven and tired from a long sail with many other men. He were the one who name me Black Midday, to make wit for his wife when he bring me home as her gift. We do nt look to the men, though they sit here for listening too. The girl scream again, and this time her nurses know. We have hear every kind of scream from Lunedie babies, and this the terror kind, from a girl grown too old for screams but told just press the hands together like saints in church, and moan if you must but not too loud. We the nurses, we start to pull our skirts up ready to run inside that room, but the ladies do nt say to go. Countess Elinor, that once was my lady, make a back ward sigh in her

skinny nose, and she do nt need to look around to make us keep our places. She push her bosom up. Duke Magnus is the King of Swedens brother. We wait. But Magnus him self throw open the door, so hard it hit old Duchess Margrethe in the shoulder where she sitting. Help! he shout, as a woman in a re. Help in here! Then Countess Elinor will not stop us any more, we all go in. The Countesses and Duchess Margrethe and Lady Drin and Baroness Reventlow and Bridget Belskat, then all we nurses from pale Annas and Marias to including me. We know this Dukes story, we know he fall in love with some thing in the water and jumped him self fty feets to meet her. We fear for our Sophia, what a mad man might do to her. Fears ever justify. Our girl is lying half off the bed, stiff like a board, with eyes staring at the bed drape. One side curtain come pulled down and puddling on the oor. All the candles blowing wild, like there been a wind, and some gone out. We gape a minute. This be some thing never seen before. Then she not stiff any more, she curling on her self like a snail, and her mouth foam like a snail too, once it poison with salt. This when she scream again and again, till she straighten out once more with that glass-eye look above her. She was asleep, say this Duke Magnus of stergtland. His beard is neat and greasy, so I do nt know to trust him. He must xed it before calling us. Madness may be on him again. We pull back the sheets, and there am some blood but not
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much. A little girl can t sleep just after That, I know this to be true here as any where else. Too much wine, say that Magnus. He rubbing his arm in his night shirt, he have an itch like may be she scratch him. She kept drinking till she went to sleep, and then this. I had some too, he adds, as if he worry for it now. The Countess Elinor send some boy to fetch the Queen and King. She step her self to the bed and try to put a hand to Sophias forehead, but the girl curl up again. Countess Elinor snatch her hand away like it be burned. Somethings wrong, she say, and it is so obvious I want to laugh. Not for meanness but from what a lady call her nerves. But I press my hands like saints, and I put on that face of sorrow that every one wear for the Morbus, and I watch the ladies watching Sophia and waiting for the Queen. Ladies think a Queen know best all ways, better than her three doctors and all they powders. Even this incomplete Queen. May be they are correct, not for me to say. The Princess curl and straighten, curl and straighten, making messy in the bedclothes and pulling down the other curtains. She do nt fall from bed, though, stay just on the edge and some time pokering off it as if she going to oat up to heaven with all the re in her body. Her whole face aming red now and her night dress wet in sweat, with the skirt rode up to show some shadow on her leg that might be blood, might be vanished all ready. She scream again. And there come a thumping at the door. Ladies wave apart, and three doctors walk in, black robes
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and at hats and assisters with bowls and things in jars. They all gape too, while the Princess throw back and forth and scatter foam from her mouth. Do you see those sores? ask Doctor Candenzius, the chief of them. He come close and poke the Princess neck with a stick. A plague necklace he call the wounds, though I never seen a necklace from the Lunedie Morbus. The second doctor, Venslov, the old one, say, That is not the typical presentation. The third doctor agree, it is not what they expect. They gape some more. No body say poison out loud. But ladies look at the oor and maids look at each other, all communicate in that perfectquiet way of this place. Do something, Countess Elinor say to those doctors. We must wait for Queen Isabel, say a young lady. The Countess cross arms below her bosoms, push them high as they will go, and look down her nose with one eye. This what she do when she most vexed with some body. She say sharp to the doctors, Dont wait. More screaming from that bed. I want to slide up and pat the Princess on her brow, but she all ready too far gone. Her necklace (so they call it) bursts, and the blood go shining out like the fountain of wine at her wedding feast. The ladies scream and Countess Elinor breathe in again. Even the doctors pale now, and they can t but watch. After Sophia spray her bed with blood, she fall back to her pillow with eyes wide. Not screaming any more. There come howling, though, from rooms around, those
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where the other princesses and their brother sleep with some maids and grooms and nurses. The children heard they sister and know they have the same Morbus she do. They howl so loud, it seem seven going to die instead of just one. See to them, the Countess say, still more sharp, with bosoms at her chin, and some ladies leave for that. I do nt. I hold a shiny bowl, though I do nt know how I come to got it. The youngest doctor unpack little knifes and glass bubbles from a wooden box. His hands tremble and one glass thing break. A drop of mercury fall to the oor and divide in to a thousand little mirror-balls, they roll about and bounce off shoes and reect what sit inside each ladys skirt. No matter, he want theriac instead. It be what they think best against a poison, though it be made with poison it self. Vipers. I do nt see Duke Magnus any more, but he is not so tall and there be many around the bed now. And I am one of them. The young doctor push me to it so I hold my bowl under Sophias elbow, where the blood ows now from a new cut. It s black, say Candenzius, but then old Venslov bring his candle close and the blood look like ordinary blood. Ah, say Candenzius. He make another cut below the rst, then tug my basin to make sure it catch Sophias stream. I all most laugh again, though the moment be most awful. The bed so soaked in blood now I taste it in my throat, like a child that linger round a market on butcher day and lick the blocks. But he want to be sure none of it from his cutting go to waste. Somethings wrong with that Negresse, say one lady, but every body ignore me be cause no body want to look away
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from Sophia. I bite my lip hard so no laughing come out. And true, no thing funny for Princess Sophia, but what nurse can watch doctors with out a laugh? Now come the sound of leaves that fall in autumn. This be silk and gold, rubbing it self as the ladies and men go to they knees. The Queen and the King walk in. Their gray hair down they half-dressed backs, their feet in velvet shoes. King Christian stand like a bullock stunned, that girl were his treasure. Queen Isabel rush to the bed. She lose one shoe. My baby! she shout, and then she hold her breath. There be no more sound than the drip-drip-driiiip of Sophia in the basin, slowing down be cause the Princess all most gone.

44

AVA BINGEN

The thick-necked guard leads the way. We pass through a series of rooms like my cell, rectangles empty but for drifts of whitewash that have aked to their oors. White dust clings to my shoes, my skirts, my nostrils; I cough. Filtered through that dust, the air smells sour, and I think these must be the palace grain bins, depleted for the celebration that perhaps only now is quieting in the great hall and courtyards. I imagine lords and ladies tottering drunkenly off to bed, Swedish knights sleeping where they fall, hordes of the poor outside the gates gone ecstatic over the scraps and sauce-sloppy bread saved as what the nobles call their charity. The guard pulls open a heavy door and lifts a tapestry ap behind it. I think, Here is my fate. I step inside, feeling each little jostle of movement in my bones. Fate wears a handsome face, being a dark man with light eyes and white teeth, a neat beard, black curls, black velvet clothes, an elaborate sword hilt, and an enormous red ruby on his rst nger. I know him. I have gazed after him before, across courtyards and corridors; all the palace girls have. He is the nest fellow at court, murky and brooding and as unapproachable as a prince. Handsome, that is, in his own way;

on another man, his face might be too narrow, his nose too long, his eyes too hooded. But on him, perfection. He is Nicolas Bullen af Bon. Steward of the Queens household for the last year or so, appointed as a favor (I believe) to someone in the ranks of the Kings household (it being tradition that each half of the royal couple keeps a separate staff ); lord of lands on one of the western green islands and owner of a castle called Aftenslund; a great man known for his ambition to be greater. He sits now at a table heaped with papers in the dim light of an oil candle. His teeth look as long and sharp as a wolf s, and they gleam like the pearl in his ear. I have never trusted anyone with bright white teeth. So, he says, here is a surprising turn of events. Who likes a surprise? I cannot speak. I keep my eyes down and make a curtsy. It is all I can think to do. I, says Lord Nicolas, crumpling a page with one elbow, never have favored surprises myself. I prefer a good plan. He dismisses the pouch-necked guard and the door latch thonks as it falls in place. I imagine the guard waiting just beyond, ready to drag me off to some worse dungeon where I might be tortured. Lord Nicolas has only to raise his voice to make it so. He gestures toward me, Come here, and adds, Look at me. There is some relief in receiving an order, as now I know what to do. I use the servants trick of focusing on his chin, so
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it seems Im attentive but still properly deferential. I notice a single gleam of silver among the dark hairs there. I must admit that surprises create opportunities, Lord Nicolas comments, as if continuing a conversation. His mouth has already settled back into the more smoothly pleasant expression it wears around the court. But they also disturb the best-laid arrangements. He lights another candle from the rst; its spreading glow makes the room both smaller and larger, a storehouse of riches. What is not gilded is made of nest amber or glass, and the walls are hung with bright pictures and tapestries. He has an entire bowl of sugar cherries and lemons to himself. My own sugar cherry is growing sticky, melting between my breasts. In the light, I feel him gazing at me a long time, know hes seeing the same things in my face that the nobles see in all of my station when they bother to look: pale, tall, with big strong bones for working and a wide brow for . . . not thinking, exactly, but remembering. Remembering their commands and our conquest, for while their blood bears the dark stamp of France, ours is said to belong to witches expelled from Norway in a long-ago time of pagans. We have a natural inclination to labor and a feel for the sea, since we lived long in those boats and (some say) mated with the mermaids who guided us to these islands of warm-water springs and oating yellow stone. I may be a scrawny example now, but I carry the history as well as anyone else can manage.
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All of this Lord Nicolas sees in me, and the pricked ngers and strained eyes that are a seamstresss badges of ofce. I think he guesses everything about me, down to the smell of the lanolin I rub into my hands and the avor of parts I keep hidden. Lord Nicolas is handsome and powerful and knowing and rich. He could make a woman feel pleasured and safe. And that woman would be a fool. Ava Mariasdatter Bingen, he says, and so he knows my name. You have served in the Queens household for how long? Almost a year, my lord. Health to your soul. I keep my eyes on that single gray hair on his chin. I sew her personal linens, I add unnecessarily, for of course he already knows what matters. I cant stop myself from chattering: Ive never worked on a dress before. I dont know why the Countess chose me to repair the Queens bodice. (The Countess, far paler even than the sturdy descendants of Norway.) And such a thing as tonight has never happened with me. I havent even stuck a lady with a pin when attaching her ruff; I cannot explain it cant blame Isabel for moving, cant give any excuse but my own awkwardness but I assure you the injury was unintended . . . I dont mention the missing spectacles, which would make me look careless. He lifts a hand to stop me. Women have been dismissed from royal service for less. I let my eyes ick upward again. Are we talking only of dismissal? But then, losing my position might be worse than
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being put to death; my family would be shamed once again, and I would lose my hope of independence. Who would hire a seamstress whos stabbed the Queen? Only the same nonexistent person who would marry a virgin who miscarried on the church plads. I hear a ticking somewhere in the room; Nicolas Bullen must have a clock. My lord. I squeeze the words around the lump in my throat. I promise you I meant no betrayal. That is, I have always worked to the Queens trust. I have never I almost wish he would torture me; I think my body might take the assault better than my emotions. Nicolas Bullens hand silences me again. Long ngers for a man his size, I notice; theyd look even longer if he wore a smaller ring. I imagine that hand closing around my throat, squeezing the words back into my belly. I realize I am stretching my neck as if inviting him to do this. As if I deserve punishment. Lord Nicolas smiles. His sharp teeth shine. He, too, sees an invitation in my gesture; he thinks Im trying to tempt him. In this age of ruffs and high collars, bare necks are tempting spots. Anyway, I would never refuse it would be unwise . . . He has such power. And so it is not surprising that I nd myself on the oor of that little room, with Lord Nicolass courtly cloak spread around him to a pool of black velvet just beyond my russet skirts. Me on my knees, he on his haunches, and his ngers wormed in beneath my cap to my hair. The tines of his ring
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yank out a strand. We are kissing, after a fashion. His tongue licks at my tongue, and mine tries to respond without choking. Does he think this is pleasurable? Does he think Ill melt at these brutal kisses? It feels as if hes exploring me, trying to nd the secret nooks inside my head. His perfume is so strong my nose burns. His ngertips plug my ears, so I hear nothing but the rush of my own heart, and I clench my ribs to make that tattling organ slow. Meanwhile his breath both sulfurous and sweet, hes been chewing something like coriander passes down into my lungs and out again through my nose, my mouth, into his nose and mouth. We are breathing together. I close my eyes, and for a moment I tell myself that it is the embrace of which young girls dream. With a nobleman. Perhaps this is all he wants from me; perhaps I can give myself to save myself. Perhaps it is only the memory of Jacob that prevents me from succumbing willingly . . . Because I am myself and have learned fear from experience, the thought of salvation quickly turns to anxiety. Surely he expects more than a kiss. He is exacting a penance, after all; I am here because I pricked the Queen and made her bleed. No punishment stops with a kiss. Yes, I am right. He takes my hand. I think I know what he wants, and I touch his chest, the slick prickles of gold embroidery. He shifts, and the chest is out of reach. He stops the clumsy kissing to wrestle my hand inside his codpiece. For a moment I recoil at the heat, the coarse hair. But
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Lord Nicolas shifts, deftly trapping my hand before it can leave his breeches. He clears his throat and licks his wicked white teeth and stares at me with expectation. What I must do now is unmistakable. I will be lucky if this is all. I hold my breath to trap all my courage inside. Then I work my way deeper into the codpiece. I nd that Lord Nicolas is considerably smaller than Jacob Lille, which seems strange; a lord should be grander in all things. He is also limp within all that stiff cloth like a bird fallen from its nest into a patch of brambles, lost and in need of solace; or a dead herring on a bed of dried eel weed, waiting for salt. I curl my ngers against it, then around. Thus I commit a sin. A worse sin, the priests would say, than the ordinary conversation between man and woman, because the goal of this act is pleasure only, not procreation, and it wastes the seed. But in this age of Italian Fire, the nobility is known for substituting new actions for the eternal one. And I know the apron class prefers this, as it does not lead to a baby that will mean a life in the streets and, most likely, a speedy death. I cant help it, I am disgusted. Where once I thrilled to touch linens that would touch royal esh, or reached out surreptitiously to brush a passing noble, now I want to scrub myself rather than continue what Im doing. A gesture that echoes my night with Jacob and that is why it upsets me. It is a betrayal of love. It is a duty of court. It is the act of a whore.
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I try to imagine myself caught up in a fairy spell, with this another trial before a grand reward. I describe Lord Nicolass little bird to myself: yeasty, sticky, soft, like nothing else on this night of spun-sugar treats. I try to make it harmless. As if responding to my unspoken words, the little bird utters. It grows rmer. And then I stop. I wrench my wrist from his clothes and pull vehemently away, though this might mean a blow across the face for me. I am much more afraid of what Ive already felt. I felt the softness of skin, yes. The sponginess of esh not yet fully erect. And some lumps wiggling beneath that skin, like eggs, or insects burrowed deep. My palms scrub at my skirt, trying to wipe all trace of him onto my clothes. Lord Nicolas grabs both of my hands. Dont be a goose, he says. Theres nothing for you to fear there. When I shudder, he unlaces his codpiece, pushes himself into the light, and makes me watch while he counts off: Emerald, icking one of those lumps. Turquoise. Ruby. Flick, ick. Pearl, and another turquoise, and another . . . Under his own ngers, naming jewels, he grows harder than my touch managed to make him. Am I to believe that Lord Nicolas uses his manhood as a purse? The nobility are always doing mysterious things, but this dees any kind of sense. Sir why? He takes his hands away, gazes down as if he can see jewels on the outside, as if they adorn a gorgeous golden scepter. He thinks himself very ne, indeed. A courtier should
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carry wealth on his person as a sign of his position. And in case called upon to, say, ransom a captured king or save a fair lady from ravishment. He sounds so pleased that I think he might be telling the truth, that this is his logic and these are the contents of his manhood. Why not believe? I put my ngers there again. I am a practical girl, after all, and a curious one; my father is a scholar in his way. I feel what I think must be the scars of stitches, tiny darts in skin that had to stretch to accommodate these foreign lumps. I bend close and think I see them, these scars. Its dizzying to contemplate. A kings ransom in jewels, hidden in the same organ with which he piddles out an evenings worth of water and wine. And I am holding all that wealth in my hand. Nicolas nudges himself into my st. I have a task to complete, and I begin again. As I give Lord Nicolas this dutiful caress, I think of my impossible task, to coax a transformation out of this reluctant little bird stuffed with precious eggs, to give the best pleasure if I am to save myself. Even if these lumps were the buboes of disease, I would have to do what I am doing now. And Id have to do it better Lord Nicolas grunts to signal that Ive caused him pain. Pleasure, I think, trying to inspire myself (and him) by mulling the word. Pleasure. I make my mind blank of anything else. In a few minutes, it is nished. Lord Nicolas has grunted
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again and sighed, and what he pours into my palms is not jeweled, just a pungent soup of what any man might produce. He lets me sit up and passes me a handkerchief to wipe with, then takes it back as if afraid I will play some trick with his juices if he leaves them with me. So, Ava Bingen, he says in a pleasant-enough tone, lacing his breeches together as if this is any ordinary discussion (as perhaps it is for him), now we must face the question of atonement. Theres more? I think. Lord Nicolas tosses the soiled handkerchief into the re. I take off my cap and wipe my tongue and teeth with it, scrubbing away his kiss, then rub at hands that are already dry but will probably feel dirty forever. I think again of Jacob Lille. Im grateful that there is no possibility of pregnancy coming from tonight. Lord Nicolas is watching me, almost as if he can read my thoughts. I push Jacob out of my mind he doesnt belong here with us. Lord Nicolas says, with a surprising sort of gentleness, Ava Mariasdatter, I trusted you for a moment, just now. I trusted your hand and your discretion, to prove you arent some mad woman running around with needles out and the intent to do harm. You must compensate one trust with another. When my confusion is obvious, he explains: You must make yourself into someone I trust forever. Not gentleness, then wiliness, setting a trap. Certainly, my lord. It is the only answer I can make. I
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smell his breath on mine as the vow leaves my lips. I wonder for a wild moment if he plans to keep me as a mistress, and if a mutual trust and dependence might somehow develop between us. If I am to succeed at court, I shall need not only hard work and good luck but also a sponsor. A lord with inuence and wealth. And if some of that wealth were distributed to me, I would in time buy passage and a companion to look for Jacob abroad. Copenhagen, Stockholm, Aarhus . . . Lord Nicolas acts as if he does not notice my thinking, only my assent. He tugs at his shirt, then his doublet, arranging himself to perfection. He lays out some terms of our agreement. First, he says, you must keep my secrets. Of course. This hidden wealth is not for others to know about. I think of the ladies I have seen preening as he walks by, but I can keep a secret better than any lady, if I choose to. Of course not. It isnt just wealth, he says incidentally, but a guard against disease. Recommended by Eastern doctors. So I dont need to worry about contracting a poisonous Fire from you, nor you from me each jewel has a special property that makes falling ill impossible. I was never worried. We didnt He laughs. Havent you heard? The Fire burns best in warm, moist places, but there are those whove got it on their hands, their ears, their noses. No spot is safe. Except on my person, thanks to these medical advances.
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Im not worried, I repeat, lying this time. Having survived the Great Sickness, I am a worrier by nature; I will worry about this evening as I lie in bed, and it will give me many sleepless nights. What I have seen of medical practices does not inspire trust. Ah, bon. His white teeth show. He returns to his table, with the ghostly papers none of them written on, I see now in the increased light rufing as he stirs the air. And so, he says, thumbing from one blank page to the next, on to our ofcial contract.You are no longer a seamstress. He makes a few marks with a pen on a white sheet, and my heart sinks to my knees. I have no sense of what hes writing; I cant read. You are not leaving the palace, he adds, as if presenting me with another treat. From tomorrow onward, you will be an attendant in the royal nursery. You will be trusted with the Kings and Queens children; or rather, you will be trusted with waiting on their nurses, to begin with. And in your new position, you will have new duties.You will be eyes and ears, a trusted observer. For me. I struggle to stand, though he hasnt told me to do so. My bones ache more deeply, even, than at any other time this past year. Shame has made me weak rst the pregnancy, then the miscarriage, now this: servicing a lords casual lust has turned me into both whore and spy. Nicolas claries, as if I didnt already understand, as if Im as doltish as I feel: Youll join what I call an army of angels
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who work in the Queens household to protect her and the children, of course. Nicolas smiles as if expecting some reverence. Commander of an angel army, master of me. What do you think, Ava? This is what I think: Make one mistake and you nd your life utterly changed.Your good graces gone, yourself in thrall to some dark lord. But theres no sense lamenting it. I curtsy on unsteady legs. Thank you for your leniency. Lord Nicolas seats himself in a chair carved and painted impressively enough to rival the Kings throne. He reaches for a pen. I assume you cannot write? I admit that its true, though Ive learned letters enough to make monograms on noble linens and to spell my name if necessary. Unless the family is very rich, an artisans daughters do not learn the skill of making sense with ink. Then your promise will have to be enough. I promise. And your name. This I do show him I can write, though in somewhat shaky letters; I am better with the needle than the pen. AVA. Thats all I can spell of my name. I recall, with a new wave of revulsion, that it means of the bird. He studies my signature and takes back the pen, apparently satised. There will, of course, be penalties if you disobey. Swift and unpleasant ones. He bares his wolsh teeth. So, then. I will see you when summoned. It seems Im dismissed, and in a way that leaves me more
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shamed than ever. Done with, disposed of, sent away. Property. Still bowing, and backing up as I would do in the Kings or Queens presence, I reach the door and lift the damask ap over it. One more thing he stops me, scratching at the paper that will reorder my life; making my skin crawl with fear you will move to a new dorter, one for servants of lower rank, not the needlewomen. And I would prefer that in the nursery you be known as Ava Mariasdatter, not Ava Bingen. Of course. He wants me to use my peasant name, which emphasizes my relation to my mother, rather than following the merchants and artisans custom of maintaining a family surname through the fathers line. I curtsy again, accepting this degradation too. Why not? Being Mariasdatter will bring less shame on the father and stepmother who have treated me well. A struggle with the latch, during which Lord Nicolas rattles his papers, and I get the door open. There I nd the thick-necked guard managing to doze while he stands. And the sudden sound of bells ringing, so loud it nearly knocks me to my knees. Sainted lice and blowies Lord Nicolas leaps behind me, scattering papers all around whatever could have happened? And so another trial is complete.

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The Kingdom of Little Wounds


Susann Cokal

www.candlewick.com